Once when I was an associate pastor, completing my master’s of divinity degree, I moved a trash can in a hallway of the church I was serving to another part of the same hallway. I don’t recall why I moved it or what motivated me to make this bold and unusual step, but I can tell you that it was the last trash can that I ever moved in any other church. Within hours, the trash can was moved back to its original position. There was a story that went with it which I don’t remember. However, I do remember the lesson quite well: change is hard.
Change is hard, no matter how liberal or conservative, no matter how silent or vocal, no matter your race, religion, creed or non-creed. Even if the change is counted as a gain, there is always loss associated with it. A child leaves home for college: the child loses security, but is gaining independence, while the parents gain a bedroom, but lose the child.
As much as we don’t like to admit it, our lives are defined by the change we encounter daily. How well we adapt to change may be a good measure of how well we cope with stress. What tools do we keep in our toolboxes to deal with stress? For Quakers, our testimonies can be an overlooked yet important element to coping with change in a dynamic world, especially when faced with the ultimate change in life—death.
Death is never a popular topic, except in murder mysteries and genealogical society meetings. Aging, and the eventual death which attends it, is fought tooth, nail, nip and tuck in our society. Youth and vitality are honored and worshiped, while the aged and aging become unpopular and invisible. Humanity’s adverse reaction to death is historical and monumental, as we see the results of cultures attempting to assure their place in the after “life” and memorialize their lives with structures which can be seen from space. Our world’s financial health often turns on the health of insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies, which dictate to many around the world the length and comfort of their lives.
To those who have suffered a recent loss, or to those who are struggling with a life-ending illness (and to you who are caring for those loved ones you will be losing soon), I pray for good grieving and peaceful passing. I am deeply sorry for your losses. I am deeply sorry for the gaping wounds this passing will leave in your lives, and pray the comfort of the Spirit abide with you during this time of transition.
I believe within the paragraph above I conveyed the message of empathy with those suffering from death or near-death, speaking in a way which recognized the truth of the situation. Integrity is a holistic approach to truth-telling and truth-living, testifying of God’s love through truth. As much as we fight against the idea of death, Scripture is correct—we don’t know the numbers of our days; tomorrow isn’t promised to us. We don’t know the hour and the day of our Lord’s coming (Matthew 24:42).
Living with death, as an integral part of our lives, testifies to the truth of God’s love for us. We can begin to discuss with our loved ones our departure from this earthly home to another home with God. With integrity we can begin planning for a time when hard questions may be harder because of physical or mental instability. Many questions must be answered, which evoke strong emotions for families and friends, because the truth of our mortality reminds us we won’t always be physically present. Do we want to be buried in a family plot? Or cremated and interred? Who is going to pay for the expenses of death, such as a funeral?
One of my friends recently asked her husband about his wishes for end-of-life: did he want to be kept alive by artificial means, or sign a do-not-resuscitate order? Where did he want to be buried? She felt the need to have both of their wishes known officially, so their families would not have to struggle with these decisions. He was not prepared to have that discussion with her. Many folks are not prepared, and lack of preparation can inflict serious, long-term consequences when families are faced with gut-wrenching, heart-breaking decisions. Even if a person’s wishes are known, sometimes the pain of the moment is overwhelming for families.
How can we approach this topic with our loved ones? Peaceful integrity can overcome the overwhelming emotions associated with our own and our family’s death. My friend made a great start, and the key to her success is to peacefully finish the discussion. Her husband’s reaction was a gift; she now understands how he feels about the topic of death and dying. He wouldn’t talk about it, but that doesn’t mean that sometime soon—hopefully sooner than later for her sake—he will be prepared to talk about it. He knows the topic is on her mind. She knows the topic is painful to him. Both know death is part of life; both have suffered the loss of a parent while they have been adults.
Storytelling can be a wonderful avenue of opening a serious discussion about our mortality. “Remember when Aunt Betsy died, and her sister screamed because the undertaker put her in the wrong suit of clothes?” Unfortunately, I had to make up a funny funeral story. Most of mine are filled with families in the throes of pain who act out badly. Those are instructive as well, teaching how not to act. These stories can bring out discussions based on comparisons: “Uncle Mike was cremated, but my parents have a family plot, and I always wanted to be buried with them.”
How can we talk about death when we’re so vibrantly alive?
What do we say to a friend who has lost a child? What do we say to a husband who has just lost his wife of over 50 years? How can we show them the love of God without sounding like a Hallmark card, or worse, hurting them with a popular yet inappropriate comment? Of course we want to fix our loved ones who are aching, but no amount of words from us will ever bring back their loved one. With integrity, first we can admit to ourselves that we don’t have that power. Guess what? Our friends and family know it, too, and don’t expect us to work miracles.
Second, when someone is faced with imminent death, the best gift we can give anyone is our presence, our undivided presence. Use those active listening skills you’ve mastered over the years, and make that person the center of your universe. You don’t have answers to the hard questions—no one does. You don’t know why they became ill. You don’t know why people suffer. You don’t know that everything is going to be all right, because it might not be. Living and speaking with integrity means that you admit to the person or persons that you don’t have the answers, but you’re happy to be with them at this time. You don’t know what’s going to happen, but you’re willing to be with them when it does. Don’t be afraid to look people in the eyes and cry with them when they cry. Don’t shove tissues at them because their crying makes you uncomfortable and you want them to stop. That’s an example of sympathy. An empathetic person allows their friend to cry until they want to finish, and maybe shed a tear with them as well.
Third, most folks’ spiritual lives affect their views on death. I have spent time with families just two ICU rooms apart who were both self-described Christians yet had very different views of death and dying. Each of these views fit their understanding of Christ, life, and death. Each view led to actions which resulted in vastly different outcomes. One family member is still alive with the assistance of modern medicine and machines and is “awake” at times. The other family, based on the patient’s request, chose to discontinue any support, and sat with their loved one until they died.
Each family made decisions based on their understanding of the human condition—physically and spiritually. Each family made the decision as a family, looking to one another for wisdom and support. Each family sought to discern the wishes of their loved one, the wishes of one another, in such a way that their loved one was still respected and treated with dignity. The decision to maintain life, or to end it, was done thoughtfully, emotionally, and spiritually. The families walked away from ICU knowing they acted with integrity, satisfied if not grieving.
Fourth, as I have previously mentioned, great emotional upheaval often accompanies just the thought of death and dying. Putting aside that emotion, while making decisions about end-of-life situations, is not healthy nor is it acting with integrity. Emotions help us name our feelings, and our feelings are instructive as a part of self-reflection. When I think about my own death, I feel sad that my children’s lives will be affected. For example, I feel sad that they will miss work, will spend time struggling with legal issues and tax forms. Perhaps if I recognize the cause of this sadness, then I can attempt to alleviate some of their future stress.
Lastly, we need to tell one another the truth in love when confronting death. Integrity demands that we accept the ultimate truth, and our relationships will be stronger after the storms of loss have passed. As a chaplain at a men’s prison, part of my job description is to assist offenders who have suffered losses in their families. Family members contact my office almost daily to inform offenders that someone has died. Some families decide to wait and tell the offender the bad news, sometimes as long as several months. This inaction rarely has a positive effect; in fact, the offender feels more alienated and pushed outside the family circle than ever before. The offender, who is physically disconnected from their family, is disconnected from a communal grief process as well. During these times, a telephone call is often their only source of comfort.
One offender was contacted by a hospice organization so that he could speak to his dying sibling one last time. The offender was stunned, because he did not know his sibling was ill. His family had decided not to share that, believing it would save the offender stress. At a loss, the offender asked me what he should say on the phone. I advised him to be honest—whatever he said, just tell his loved one the truth. The moment came when the phone was placed at the ear of his dying sibling, and the offender began to pour out his heartfelt words. My plain, poorly painted, disorganized office became holy ground as the offender reached out one last time.
He told the truth through tears, with integrity.